Monday, July 30, 2012

The mysticism of sound and music

Why is music called the divine art, while all other arts are not so called? We may certainly see God in all arts and in all sciences, but in music alone we see God free from all forms and thoughts. In every other art there is idolatory. Every thought, every word has its form. Sound alone is free from form. Every word of poetry forms a picture in our mind. Sound alone does not make any object appear.
Those words are from The Mysticism of Sound and Music by founder of The Sufi Order in the West and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). He is one of those figures often associated with "supermarket spirituality", but there is much in his book for those prepared to accept that science does not hold every answer. Hazrat Inayat Khan teachings revolve around the centrality of vibrations - "Spirit descends into matter by the law of vibrations, and matter may also ascend toward the spirit", which connect with recent paths about al-Kindī, amplification, kinetic art, and the link between frequency response and audience response. Two appearances of the word God in the first paragraph will doubtless have triggered the exit of many readers. But for those still with me despite being wary of the "melting pot of religiosity", I also recommend The Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville, a philosopher who believes "spirituality is far too important to be left to fundamentalists".

Hazrat Inayat Khan also teaches the importance of wazifa - "the power of the word which works upon each atom of the body, making it sonorous, making it a medium of communication between the external life and the inner life". Jean-luc Fafchamps (b. 1960) wrote his Sufi Word for ensemble and orchestra despite the composer's admission that "I am not a Sufi, or even Muslim and I do not speak Arabic". Sufi Word is a musical depiction of six letters of the Arabic alphabet triggered by the Sufi chart seen above (left click to enlarge) which maps the symbolic interrelations of the letters; the resulting composition uses "analogue correspondences as the basis for a system". A CD of Sufi Word is available from left-field label Sub Rosa by Ensemble Ictus and the Orchestre National de Lille conducted by Peter Rundel. This recording is endowed with enough low frequency vibrations to satisfy both Hazrat Inayat Khan and those who think classical music should turn up the bass - there is a legal low-res file of the complete work here. Some may think that Sufi Word takes Hazrat Inayat Khan's injunction that sound alone is free from form too literally. But Jean-luc Fafchamps is one of those musical explorers who cuts handholds that are sometimes beyond the reach of mere mortals, thereby providing a challenge to extend a puny reach that otherwise threatens to atrophy in today's ruthlessly moderated culture.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Delicious irony in choice of Olympic anthem

Today’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics celebrates Britain’s ‘green and pleasant’ land, and the pageant, will, to quote the event’s artistic director Danny Boyle, create “a picture of ourselves as a nation”. Prominent among the music accompanying the ceremony is Parry’s inspired setting of William Blake, which includes the famous lines ‘Till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green and pleasant land’. Over the years Parry's Jerusalem has become associated with what in 1930s France was known as “ethnic nationalism”, and tonight’s event with its village green, maypoles and last night of the Proms tableau seems set to perpetuate that association. But there is a delicious irony in the choice of Olympic anthem. Because Jerusalem, far from being the product of ethnic nationalism, started life as a rallying cry for a spiritual movement formed, to quote its founder, to appeal "to the whole of humanity... Hindus, Mohammedans, Buddhists... " And that is only the start of a long but remarkable story, because Sir Francis Younghusband, who commissioned Jerusalem in 1916 and died seventy years ago this week, was an evangelical Christian Colonel who led a bloody invasion of Tibet. But he went on to became a champion of spiritualism, free love, extraterrestrials, nature festivals, Indian gurus and multiculturalism, and, in sharp contrast to the corporate culture of the London Olympics, advocated a world where “the saint and sage are honoured above the richest capitalist”. In the montage above Sir Francis holds one of his prized possessions, a Buddha presented to him by the Ganden Tripa, the spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sir Francis Younghusband's personal journey was truly remarkable. He was born in a hill station in India's North West Frontier region in 1863. His mother was an evangelical Christian and his father came from a military family and played a central role in setting up the Indian police force. Younghusband was educated at Clifton School, Bristol, an establishment which followed the principle pioneered by Dr Arnold at Rugby School of producing pupils dedicated to "a new Christian chivalry of patriotic service". After graduating with honours from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst Younghusband was commissioned in the King's Dragoon Guards and returned to the land of his birth India, where he was eventually stationed at Rawal Pindi in the shadow of the mountains that were to feature so prominently in his life, the Himalayas. But soon Younghusband felt stifled by the rigidity of military life, and his life as both geographic and spiritual explorer started when he took a two month leave of absence to travel north to Turkestan. Here the political aspirations of Britain, China and Russia overlapped, and it was this overlap which was later to trigger Younghusbands' infamous invasion of Tibet.

His involvement in geopolitics then took him to the borders of Afghanistan. Here his Christian faith began to weaken and he started on a remarkable journey from evangelical Christianity to Eastern mysticism. But he was not yet free of Victorian values, and in 1897 he married an older woman whose horror of physical intimacy prompted him to tell her "We shall have a happier union if all that perfectly natural but lower part is eliminated from it”. However, despite a no-sex-before-death pact, his new wife was pregnant by the end of their Paris honeymoon. Sir Francis and Lady Younghusband are seen below with their daughter and the Maharajah of Kashmir.

Although Younghusband's Christain faith weakened his commitment to Britain's colonial ambitions remained intact, and he pursued a career in the border regions of India that moved seamlessly between the military and the political. At this time he was still committed to Britain’s colonial ambitions and he became a disciple of the social theorist and racial determinist John Beattie Crozier. In 1903 the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, appointed Younghusband to head an expedition to the frontier with Tibet as, to quote Lord Curzon "the Tibetans has been troublesome neighbours of late... and were now trying to have secret dealings with the Russians". The photo below shows Colonel Younghusband shortly before he left for Tibet.

The original objective of the expedition was to do no more than advance to Sikkim on the Tibetan border. But the headstrong Colonel Younghusband pressed on into Tibet, and, when negotiations with a representative of the thirteenth Dalai Lama collapsed, a confrontation ensued. This resulted in the notorious Chumi Shengo massacre in which 622 Tibetans died. Further killings and lootings of monasteries followed and by the time Younghusband's expedition reached Lhasa and imposed a penal peace treaty, 2800 Tibetans had been killed. Under the terms imposed by Younghusband but later rescinded by the British government, the Tibetans were to pay half a million pounds sterling in reparation and British troops could remain in Tibet until 1979. Below is the view in August 1904 as British troops enter Lhasa with the Potala Palace in the background.

Younghusband's highhanded leadership of the Tibet expedition met with an equivocal response in London. But despite this he was made a Knight Companion of the British Empire and appointed to the influential position of British resident in Kashmir. In the English press a Church of England bishop boasted that the Chumi Shengo massacre "will be the means of lighting up the torches of enlightement and Christianity in Tibet" but the effect on Younghusband was quite the opposite. After the peace treaty was signed he underwent a spiritual epiphany in the mountains of Tibet. With this came the revelation that is central to traditions ranging from Gnosticism to Islam, namely that men are at heart divine. Following this and while serving in Kashmir, he took the first tentative steps towards creating a new religion inspired by his epiphany; at this point his proto-religion drew on Christianity and Islam, coupled with his own vision of Empire. Francis Younghusband is seen below in Kashmir with his Ladakhi guide.

As his spiritual preoccupations increased, political diplomacy lost its appeal for the new knighted Sir Francis, and he resigned from his position in Kashmir to make an abortive foray into British politics. Following a near fatal road accident in Belgium he set out his proposals for the new religion in the book Within: Thoughts During Convalescence. In this he replaced the commonly accepted concept of a superior deity with a divine power residing within each individual. Writing in 1912 Younghusband introduced the distinctly New Age and counterculture concepts of free love and messages from aliens living on other planets, and went on to predict that a new spiritual leader would arrive in the form of a God-Child.

The outbreak of the First World War strengthened Sir Francis' religious fervour; he declared that "We are engaged in a spiritual conflict - a holy war - the Fight for Right” and that the spirit of the people “would respond to music, speech, song”, a belief that prompted him to form the Fight for Right movement. In a pioneering example of multiculturalism Younghusband resisted attempts to make the Fight for Right movement exclusively Christian: stating instead that he wanted it to appeal "to the whole of humanity... Hindus, Mohammedans, Buddhists..." This concept appealed to a wide constituency, and the supporters of the movement included a number of cultural celebrities, among them the novelist Thomas Hardy.

As part of a drive to widen the Fight for Right membership, Younghusband wanted a catchy rallying anthem. In 1916 the poet laureate and supporter of the movement Robert Bridges sent Hubert Parry, seen above, a copy of William Blake's 'Milton'. Bridges suggested that Parry compose "suitable, simple music to Blake's stanzas', and the result is history, or rather Jerusalem. Parry's setting of Blake was sung for the first time in March 1916 by three hundred members of Fight for Right conducted by Walford Davies in the Queen's Hall, then home to Henry Wood's Promenade concerts.

Jerusalem achieved the Edwardian equivalent of trending, but Fight for Right fared less well, and in 1917 a split opened in the movement between belligerent patriots and committed pacifists. As Fight for Right became increasingly miltaristic Parry withdrew Jerusalem as its anthem, and Younghusband sided with the pacifists and severed connections, and the movement was eventually wound up.

Despite this setback Younghusband continued his mystical explorations and between 1920 and 1930 published twelve books on a range of subjects. In one of these he took as his alter ego a mythical Indian Brahmin, and in another he anticipated aspects of the currently fashionable Gaia theory and of the worship of omniscient Mother figures such as Mother Meera. Elsewhere he extolled the virtues of "Sacred Dramas, Community Singing and Nature Festivals", and the photo below shows the Religious Drama Society which he founded in performance. The sky was literally the limit for Sir Francis and his final essay into spirituality introduced higher beings from a distant planet called Altair. However Younghusband was also concerned with more practical matters, and as president of the Royal Geographical Society he laid the ground for the first unsuccessful Everest expeditions; these included the 1924 attempt which cost the life of George Mallory and another climber.

During the 1930s the retired colonialist turned sage dramatically changed his view on Indian politics. Younghusband became a supporter of Gandhi, an early champion of self-rule, and it was at this time that he advocated an India where "the saint and sage are honoured above the richest capitalist". Which leaves one wondering what Sir Francis would make of today's sub-continent with its slumdog millionaires - Danny Boyle directed the eponymous film - and call-centres. A fascination with saints and sages drew Younghusband into the circle of the radical Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who is seen below. Younghusband also adopted various gurus, these included Shri Purohit Swami who was to the 1930's counter culture what Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was to the Beatles’ circle thirty years later In 1937 a shared enthusiasm with 'supersensory phenomena' brought Younghusband into contact with the aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh in India, where the two adventurers met a variety of mystics and sages as well as taking to the air together.

While in India Younghusband joined in the inter-faith celebrations held by the Parliament of Religions to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the Hindu religious leader Ramakrishna, an event he attended as the official representative of the League of Nations. In 1934 the increasingly syncretic Sir Francis had founded the World Congress of Faiths to promote religious fellowship; its first congress in London had been addressed by the influential Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, and a subsequent meeting was addressed by Iman of Woking Mosque. Among those attending the first Congress was a young Alan Watts who later became a populariser of Zen Buddhism an important counterculture figure. Watts became closely involved with the organisation and served on its executive committee. In the photo below Sir Francis is seen at a meeting of the World Congress of Faiths flanked by Britain's first high commissioner for Palestine  Herbert Samuel and pioneering pacifist Gilbert Murray.

Later in the 1930s Younghusband's volte face on colonial matters was matched with a similar change in his views on racial determinism, and he became an early and outspoken critic of the German fascist movement. At the end of the decade his pursuit of religious fellowship took him to Paris to give the opening address at the Congrès Mondial des Croyances which had been formed by the French Islamic scholar Louis Massignon with the private suppport of the radical Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Despite his advancing years Sir Francis still managed to combine spiritual with earthly passions, and in 1939 the 76 year old and still-married knight embarked on a passionate love affair with an also-married and mother of six titled lady thirty-two years his junior. Perhaps unsurprisingly the septuagenarian's health slowly declined, and he died on July 31st 1942 in the arms of his mistress, Madeline, Lady Lees. The tributes were fulsome, and some years later the Indian historian Sardar Pannikar wrote that "there were only two Englishman who really penetrated into the soul of India, and they were both soldiers - Francis Younghusband and Archibald Wavell".

Sir Francis Younghusband is buried in the rural churchyard of Lytchett Minster in Dorset, home of Madeline, Lady Lees. His last resting place is green and pleasant, but any hint of ethnic nationalism is dispelled by the depiction of Lhasa's Potala Palace on his headstone. So Parry’s Jerusalem provides the perfect metaphor for Olympic Britain - a nation torn between global reality and rural idyll. In an age where technology has supplanted the mystical and brands are the new deities it is too easy to dismiss Sir Francis Younghusband as a harmless Victorian eccentric. But if his vision of a society where "the saint and sage are honoured above the richest capitalist" was to become reality, Britain - and the rest of the world - would be a far more green and pleasant land.

* We are fortunate to have the exemplary biography Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer by Patrick French seen above, and this provides the primary source for this post.

* Playlist for London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony here.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

More on classical music's image problem

Graphic is from On An Overgrown Path traffic log - left click to enlarge. Another attempt to nail classical music's image problem here.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Is classical music selling itself too cheaply?

This satellite photo shows the Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant which suffered catastrophic failure after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The six reactors at Fukushima were designed by General Electric (GE), and a 2011 New York Times report was headlined "Experts had long criticized potential weakness in design of stricken reactor", and went on to report " GE began making the Mark 1 boiling-water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build — in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure". A recent study by Stanford University suggests up to 1300 deaths and another 2900 cancer related illnesses will result from the Fukushima disaster.

On Sunday July 29th the Aldeburgh World Orchestra with conductor Mark Elder performs at the BBC Proms. This newly formed orchestra brings together one hundred and twenty-four top young musicians from around the world as part of the Cultural Olympiad. A standalone credit on the Aldeburgh World Orchestra website reads "Supported by a generous gift from General Electric on behalf of Sir William Castell". Another of the orchestra's funders is the London 2012 Festival, which in turn includes oil multinational BP among its sponsors.

Sir William Castell held executive directorships of GE subsidiary companies before becoming a group non-executive director, leaving the latter position in 2011. He also served on the board of BP for six years and was their senior independent director and also safety committee chairman for two of those years. In February 2012 Sir William left BP, this was a year after his re-election as a director was opposed in a shareholder revolt over BP's safety record following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster.

A strong defence can be mounted of the Aldeburgh World Orchestra sponsorship. GE is recognised by Newsweek as being in the top 100 green companies, and the company contests allegations that shortcomings in the reactors' containment structure contributed to the Fukushima disaster and has many business activities besides nuclear power. Sir William Castell serves on the board of the Wellcome Foundation, a global charitable trust. Then there is the argument that the team at Aldeburgh Music are such a force for artistic good. And, of course, an orchestra needs an awful lot of funding. But, despite all this, the view that classical music, like the Olympics, is selling itself to the corporate sector too cheaply - both ethically and financially - is becoming increasingly widespread.

Yes, commercial sponsorship is the lifeblood of most arts organisation, but is there not a middle way? Could not the Association of British Orchestras and similar industry bodies implement a voluntary agreement as follows. At point of performance - that is on orchestra websites and press releases, in concert programmes, etc - all non-public sector sponsorship to be anonymous with no identification of company or individual names. But away from point of performance sponsors can identify themselves - for instance on corporate websites, in their annual reports and PR material etc. That way the sponsors still get the required nice warm feeling, orchestras get their funding, but classical music is not directly endorsing what are sometimes ethically compromised funders.

Some sponsors will be lost and belts will need to be tightened further if such an agreement was implemented. But those sponsors that remain will be there because they are committed to supporting classical music, and not just using it to polish their tarnished corporate reputations. Other views on the feasibility of a voluntary agreement are welcome. But remember, while classical music debates nothing changes. Meanwhile enjoy the Prom.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Kraftwerk - Tour de France

No explanation needed.

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Thinking for yourself fails to trend

Recent paths converge in this Times-Picayune story about the etiquette of social media. The New Orleans report was drawn to my attention by reader Jody Walker, and I was particularly struck by Jody's accompanying email in which he wrote "...I might share a more optimistic view on social media than your own in some aspects (which makes your writing on the subject that more compelling to me)..." Which is a refreshingly different outlook to other social media users who believe personal abuse can change people's views - a belief that led the established church to exterminate thousands of perceived heretics in the Albigensian Crusade and Spanish Inquisition. Social media compulsives would do well to remember that the word 'heretic' comes from the Greek for ‘thinking for yourself’, as was noted in my post about Jordi Savall's newly released Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles & Prisons.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Multiculturalism beyond Big Music

But the storm of cries over the city reassured me. It made the single human voice, particularly the one inside one’s head, sound petty and unimportant. Meanwhile, the universal, stereophonic sound, bouncing from one side of the valley to the other, constricted space. It made the towering escarpments that surrounded the city seem to loom and drape, as if they had picked up and advanced a little bit during the day while the citizens napped and chewed their qat.
That evocation of the Muslim call to prayer by the muezzin comes from a new book by Theo Padnos. It introduces a post which both celebrates the start of Ramadan and offers an alternative to Big Music's upcoming multicultural media fest at the BBC Proms.

I recently described Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras’ new Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles & Prisons as being more audio verité than music CD, and that description also applies to the disc seen above. Almuédano is an atmospheric portrayal of the adhān, the call to prayer heard five times a day in every Muslim nation. On Almuédano the muezzin are field recordings made in Medina, Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, Cordoba and Seville, and they are mixed with ambient noise and the sound of the qanun to create an imaginative audio collage. Eduardo Paniagua plays the qanun, and the CD is produced by him and released on his own independent label Pneuma.

That mention of Eduardo Paniagua leads us down a typically overgrown path that starts with two CDs released by Harmonia Mundi in the late 1970s. One is titled Musique de la Gréce Antique and features Gregorio Paniagua directing Atrium Musicae de Madrid, an ensemble of which Eduardo Paniagua was a member. This disc is a radical re-imagining of surviving musical fragments of ancient Hellenic music that hovers tantalizingly between archaeology and the avant-garde, as is explained in this extract from Gregorio Paniagua’s sleeve note: “Before sounding the first note of the Euripides papyrus, we commence the record with a sonorous explosion which, in the manner of the ‘Anakrousis’ or preludes, recreates the silence necessary to enter into contact with music as remote and unknown as this”. The other CD, al-Ándalus: Musique Arabo-Andalouse, has never been out of the Harmonia Mundi catalogue since its 1977 release, and on it the Paniagua brothers again perform with Atrium Musicale de Madrid

Eduardo Paniagua trained as an architect and is one of four musical brothers. Gregorio Paniagua is his older brother, and another brother, Luis, is a luthier who lives in Tangiers and is married to the psaltery player Begoña Olavide who featured in my recent post 'Sketches of multicultural Spain'. Atrium Musicale de Madrid disbanded in 1984 and Eduardo Paniagua started the Pneuma label in 1993. The label’s name comes from the word in Graeco-Arabic medicine for the fundamental energy of life. There are now more than one hundred and twenty CDs in the Pneuma catalogue and every one is informed by the cultural diversity that distinguished medieval al-Ándalus. All the discs follow Eduardo Paniagua’s formula of mixing meticulous scholarship with imaginative interpretation, and I am featuring a small selection here to encourage readers to start their own explorations. My accompanying images show that the discs are visually as well as musically distinctive. As befits a record label founded by an architect, graphic excellence is a prominent feature of all Pneuma releases - Eduardo Paniagua is clearly a believer in al-Kindī's thesis that great sleeve artwork improves sound quality!

Sufi ritual music and the Moroccan classical singer and oud player Said Belcadi feature on a number of Pneuma discs. Pasion Sufi, seen above, presents Sufi chants from al-Ándalus accompanied by a traditional four piece ensemble including a ney reed flute. Arab-Andalusian music is somewhat easier on Western ears than its Middle Eastern cousin, and that coupled with a degree of interpretative freedom from the performers means this disc is a good introduction for those who want to sample the magic of the Sufi performance tradition while avoiding the extreme culture shock of the more hard core productions found elsewhere.

Hilal, above, is a free interpretation of Arab Chamber music that mixes Western (violins, cello and double bass) and traditional Middle Eastern (ney, quanun, and req) instruments, with oud master Naseer Shamma taking the lead. This is new music that builds on the Arab- Andalusian tradition, but which also defies the traditional constraints of period and culture.

A notable feature of the Pneuma catalogue are the recordings made each year at the Tetuán International Lute Festival in Morocco. These live recordings are double CDs and all are recommended despite the occasional minor production compromise. The Tetuan discs range across repertoire and instruments – for instance the 2009 release seen above features a trio including Grammy-winning violinist Charlie Bishart.

I have never been disappointed by a Pneuma CD. But if I had to single out two for particular praise they would be the disc I featured first, Almuédano, and my final choice Viaje de Las Alamas – Travelling Souls which is seen above. The latter brings together Nasser Shamma on Iraqi oud, Ashraf Sharif Khan on Pakistani sitar, and Shabbaz Hussain on Hindu tabla in a multicultural dialogue - if there is a musical equivalent of centering prayer it is this disc.

Like many before it, this post highlights how diverse and multicultural art music really is. So why is its public face so monocultural? The problem is not the musicians or the audiences, but those that control them. Big Music (aka the commercial-intermediary complex) is a monocultural club, and large institutions favour their own. The power of Big Music spreads far and wide, as is shown by just one example - Askonas Holt. This super-agent's influence ranges from managing Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle, through masterminding West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra tours, to providing endorsements for Candace Allen's plea for diversity, and beyond.

Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra undoubtedly do commendable work building cultural bridges. But according to the mainstream press, who are, of course, part of the commercial-intermediary complex, they are the only game in town. Which is simply not true. There are many multicultural champions, but almost all of them work beyond the reach of Big Music, including John McLaughlin WilliamsJordi Savall, Titi Robin, Abed Azrié, Julien WeissBegoña Olavide, Sarband and Eduardo Paniagua. In fact Titi Robin's gig at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris last November had all the vibrant inclusiveness that Candace Allen and others find lacking at Big Music concerts. Multiculturalism is alive and well if you know where to look. But if classical music really wants to make its audiences more ethnically representative and revitalise the perceived "derelict atmosphere", it must first break the hegemony of the commercial-intermediary complex. Ramadan Kareem!

* Excellent article about the Paniagua dynasty here.

** My opening paragraph deliberately omitted the title of Theo Padnos’ new book. I do recommend this much-needed exploration of the fundamentalist madrash culture in Yemen and how it engages Western youngsters. But the title Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen contributes more heat than light, and, I suspect, was the choice of the sales department and not the author.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Where are classical music’s alternative voices?

"Their style is early cunnilingual, late patricidal, lunchtime in the Everglades, Black Forest blood sausage on electrified bread, Jean Genet up a totem pole, artists at the barricades, Edgar Allan Poe drowning in his birdbath, Massacre of the Innocents, tarantella of the satyrs, L.A. pagans drawing down the moon... Jim Morrison [seen above] is an electrifying combination of angel in grace and dog in heat... The Doors are musical carnivores in a land of musical vegetarians... The Doors scream into the darkened auditorium what all of us in the underground are whispering more softly in our hearts: We want the world and we want it... NOW!"
Young music critic of the year contender Andrew Mellor would do well to study that purple prose by Tom Robbins, which describes a 1967 Doors concert in Seattle. Robbins was writing for the underground paper Helix, and his plea of “We want the world and we want it… NOW!" chimes with Mellor’s recent musings in the New Statesman about classical music concerts:
"You’d like to think the arrogant dinosaurs who create this derelict atmosphere are on the way out… But the institutions themselves don’t help by inadvertently incubating the very hierarchical behaviour they’d like to see the back of."
Andrew Mellor is long on identifying arrogant dinosaurs as the reason for classical music’s woes. But he is short on naming the dinosaurs or proposing solutions, other than banning advertisements for private schools in concert programmes. So let me help. One of the arrogant dinosaurs is the BBC Proms, a concert series that last week made a bold opening statement celebrating the jubilee of a monarch presiding over a multi-cultural Commonwealth and the staging of a multi-cultural Olympics. To do this the Proms presented Turnage at his most tokenistic, Delius at his most digestible, Tippett at his most fawning and Elgar at his most jingoistic. (Yes, I know there are other concerts). Classical music has suddenly come over very self-righteous about the colour of its audiences. Yet in the New Statesman Mellor simply laments the “blind snobbery” of Proms audiences without questioning that literally exclusive piece of programming by his sometime employer - via an intermediary - the BBC.

Another arrogant dinosaur is the Gramophone, a corporate-owned magazine, that saw its circulation collapse after a conceited chase of that myth so loved by musical Tyrannosaurus Rex, the mass market, and a publication that has subsequently failed to gain traction with the trending digital audience. Andrew Mellor writes for the Gramophone. Yet another arrogant dinosaur is BBC Radio 3, a network that also contributes to the derelict atmosphere with classical chart programmes, media friendly programming stunts, and condescending presenters - all ill-founded dogmas that have failed to attract a new audience. Andrew Mellor is a contributor to the BBC Radio3 website.

Those arrogant dinosaurs that Mellor both derides and consorts with, are all part of what in a post last year I termed the commercial-intermediary complex. At that time I said that this intermediary complex inhibits transmission from performer to audience, and is responsible in great part for the problems facing classical music today. The BBC and the Gramophone are just two members of classical music’s all powerful commercial-intermediary complex. It also includes management agencies, concert promoters and media companies - an ambitious example of the latter, incidentally, owning the New Statesman. What is truly alarming is that the arrogant dinosaurs also control almost every classical music journalist - young and old. Andrew Mellor is just one example. Another is Tom Service, who has so many music industry plates spinning in the air that a no-fly zone will soon be needed above him.

If you take money you form a relationship. By forming a relationship you are endorsing. Music journalists nibbling at the hand that feeds them are not going to dent, yet alone destroy, hierarchies. Red blooded prose and a willingness to put principles before reward may. Whatever happened to blogs and social media as the digital underground press? Early cunnilingual? - perhaps not. But where is classical music’s equivalent of late patricidal, Black Forest blood sausage on electrified bread, and artists at the barricades? Where are classical music’s alternative voices?

Quote is Stephen Davis' 2004 Jim Morrison: Life, Death Legend - yet another reminder of the lost art of music journalism. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter. Version 1.1 with amendments made on 18/07, see comment below.

Classical music has a new fashion

Demonstrating solidarity with the proletariat by gently nibbling the hand that feeds you is the new fashion among classical music's demimonde. Which means that in the New Statesman BBC Radio 3 website contributor Andrew Mellor rails against the advertisements for private schools in the BBC Proms programmes that help pay the spectacular salaries of BBC Radio 3 contributors. Others prefer to get high on the music. Today's audio contribution to our colour of music thread comes from reader Jihong Park, and in it his teacher Judith Burganger plays Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto conducted by Dean Dixon. More on this path in another reader led post - 'Dean Dixon - I owe him a huge debt'.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

You're not fit to be on the stage with these guys

Deep Purple led by Jon Lord are seen in the photo with Sir Malcolm Arnold. The occasion was a 1969 Albert Hall concert comprising the composer's Sixth Symphony, a solo set by the band and the premiere of Jon Lord's Concerto for Group and Orchestra, with Sir Malcolm conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. When the classical musicians failed to give their rock colleagues the respect they deserved, Sir Malcolm let rip with the blast quoted in my headline. Jon Lord died today age 71. The full story of Sir Malcolm and the rock stars is here.

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Are classical audiences racist? – no, quite the opposite

Are classical music audiences racist? Candace Allen thinks so based on an unfortunate incident at London's Barbican, and so do others. Here are Ms Allen's words from a recent Evening Standard interview to promote her new book Soul Music: “There are people for whom [classical music] is still very much about class, and their class only, and they can be very rough, extremely snobbish and yes, racist”, and she then says that black people are made to feel unwelcome in some classical venues. Now, On An Overgrown Path has been drawing attention to racism for some time with stories such as 'I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors' and 'Did BBC derail career of black conductor'. And yes, ethnic minorities are under-represented in classical music audiences, and we certainly need to change that. But there is a big difference between being ethnically unrepresentative and being racist. In my experience racism, in either overt or nuanced forms, is not a material problem among classical music audiences, and I will now explain why.

In 1973 I took a young and beautiful East Indian lady to a Festival Hall Concert – Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting Brahms and Stravinsky to be precise. In the 1930s Rudolph Dunbar - the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic - had come from Georgetown, Guyana to London in search of opportunity, and the young lady, who was also born in Georgetown, had made the same journey thirty years later. The concert was our first date, and fortunately she had exquisite taste and married me three years later, a union that lasts happily and unfashionably to this day. To put the timing into perspective, anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in America just six years before we started dating, and the 1976 Race Relations Act aimed at preventing discrimination on grounds of race and colour became law in the United Kingdom in the week we were married.

Our advanced years probably mean we have attended more classical concerts than Ms Allen, and the total certainly runs into four figures. These include receptions and other industry events as well as concerts, and at many my wife was one of the few, if not the only, non-white attending. Yet there was no racism, either overt or nuanced, among the audience at that 1973 Festival Hall concert. There was no racism at Karajan’s summer Salzburg Festival concerts. There was no racism when Donald McIntyre sung Wotan at Longborough. There was no racism at Sir Adrian Boult’s last BBC Prom. There was no racism at the premiere of David Hockney’s Glyndebourne Die Zauberflöte. There was no racism at Riccardo Muti’s Salzburg debut. There was no racism when Rostropovich played at Aldeburgh. There was no racism when a young Simon Rattle brought the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Mahler's Tenth Symphony to the Festival Hall. And there was no racism when Domingo sung in La Fanciulla del West at Covent Garden. In fact neither of us can recall a hint of racism among any audience at a classical concert.

That is my wife in the photo with that great transculturalist Jordi Savall. She has experienced racial prejudice first hand away from the concert hall. But when I discussed the Evening Standard story about racism among concert audiences with her, she observed “Racism among the audience? – no, in fact quite the opposite”. Discrimination on grounds of race and colour is a truly terrible thing, and, undoubtedly, it lingers on in some areas of classical music; so it is good that books like Soul Music are drawing attention to it. But in our experience classical audiences are not where we should be pointing the finger.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Social media, Shakespeare and the Bear Pit

I really think that all through history most of the bad stuff quietly eliminates itself in its particular form from generation to generation. It may be replaced by other bad stuff, but the fashion disappears. Whereas the good stuff renews itself. Anything that was good in the writing of Sophocles some good director will discover again and reproduce. But the bad stuff – when it’s forgotten, it’s gone for ever. I can’t remember all that about Shakespeare and the Bear Pit but I think that at the time people were saying: ‘Isn’t it terrible, Mr Shakespeare is writing all these classics and people are rushing to the Bear Pit’.
There will probably never be a final word in the debate about classical music's use of Twitter. But if there is, let it be those wise words from the poet Robert Lax, who is seen above. Social media and Robert Lax are an unlikely pairing, but worthwhile side turnings have emerged on this much overgrown path. The team with guest Drew McManus debated my social media post (start at 56.00") and decided that I “was almost right about Twitter”; which, I guess, is better than being almost wrong. My musings somehow inspired Drew to proposes a concert event Twitter client. But he seems to be behind the curve on that one - last year's BBC Proms website made a big deal of audience tweets, but this year tweets are nowhere to be seen. As Robert Lax said, the fashion disappears.

Recent encounters with Robert Lax left me wanting to find out more about him as savant rather than poet. That need was serendipitously met by an email from
Canadian editor Kevin Burns who pointed me in the direction of three books by Steve Georgiou. The first of these, The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lesson with Robert Lax has been ordered from Robert Lax was a great jazz fan, as was his close friend Thomas Merton. Jazz has been rather neglected here recently, so my Shakespeare meets classical soundtrack is provided by pianist Lynne Arriale and her trio with their jazz take on Touch her sweet lips and part from the score William Walton wrote for Henry V, a track from Arriale's Melody album seen below. More quoting Shakespeare here.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Feeling the pulse and race of classical music

Quite a bit of heat about Candace Allen’s new book Soul Music: The Pulse and Race of Music. So a little light is needed and hopefully this will be provided by the musician seen above. Because the good news is that John McLaughlin Williams - someone who has first hand experience of the pulse and race of music - will be reviewing the book for On An Overgrown Path. John’s review will appear later in the summer as he is currently heavily involved in producing a new performing edition of Karl Weigl’s Violin Concerto for a recording by other artists. More on Mahler’s forgotten assistant here.

Header image grabbed from YouTube video of John conducting Gershwin's Concerto in F with pianist Ludmil Angelov. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How sleeve artwork changes the sound of CDs

Arab scholarship played an important part in the European Renaissance, with a major contribution coming from the ninth century polymath al-Kindī whose erudition encompassed philosophy, mathematics, physics and music. Much of al-Kindī's scholarship is enshrined in contemporary sciences such as cryptography; but one of his more intriguing theses remains unaccepted, namely that all objects and beings emanate radiations that affect all other beings. Such an idea is difficult for contemporary minds conditioned by post-Enligtennment science to accept, until it is realised that there are scientifically proven examples of the inanimate affecting the sentient; just one example being the remarkable homing instinct of cats which is thought to be the result of electromagnetic radiation. Al-Kindī's thesis may also explain one of my more bizarre theories, namely that CDs with graphically compelling sleeve artwork sound better that those with mediocre graphics - a theory that also explains why graphic free MP3 files fail to provide the same satisfying musical experience as their CD counterparts.

A convincing example of my al-Kindī theory has been spending a lot of time in my CD player recently. Danish label Da Capo has been aggregating their acclaimed Nielsen recordings into budget priced 'The Masterworks' boxes, and Volume 2 contains the complete chamber and instrumental works on six CDs. This includes Nielsen's four string quartets, his violin sonatas and wind works, all in recent recordings by outstanding young Danish musicians. These are complemented by older (1981 vintage) but excellent sounding accounts of the piano works by Hermann D. Koppel who, as a young man, played for the composer.

Nielsen's chamber music is an important part of his oeuvre that is puzzlingly overlooked, and, if the truth be told, this new re-release with its UK pricing of less than £30 would be worth buying if packaged in brown paper bags, which happily it is not. In fact the six CDs come in exquisite card sleeves, each with excellent atmospheric monochrome photo evoking the island of Funen where Nielsen grew up, and the same graphic treatment is also applied to the excellent booklet and outer box - see accompanying illustrations.

Naxos, which distributes Da Capo, could learn a thing or two from this packaging, as the bigger label has a knack of presenting great sounding low budget recordings in graphically mediocre low budget sleeves. One canard that needs to be exposed is that CDs are a redundant and therefore irrelevant format; in fact the ratio of CD albums sales to downloads is still more than 3 to 1 in favour of physical discs. And although no information is available on format preferences for that elusive new classical market, it could just be that CDs, with their reassuring graphics and explanatory notes, appeal more to the all important 'classical virgins'.

Someone at Amazon clearly subscribes to my al-Kindī theory as the CD set of Nielsen chamber works is priced at £27.54 whereas the MP3 download is £38.99. My theory that sleeve artwork affects CD sound may be outlandish, but it is supported by contemporary science via Bell's theorem - see my posts 'Classical music as synchronicitous soup' and 'Awakening the inner analogue'. While back in the Arab world, al-Kindī's work on music theory included studying the sonic properties of the oud, and in recognition of this erudition Julien Weiss named his classical Syrian ensemble after him.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Carl Nielsen The Masterworks Vol. 2 was bought from Prelude Records. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Et tu, Brute?

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You simply can't talk about these things today

'What perplexed Britten was not his sexuality per se - he never concealed himself in a sham marriage, and sustained a loving relationship with Pears for more than half his life - but his longing for the company of underage males'.
Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise

'"The notion at its heart is of innocence v experience," says Kildea. "We tend to say that innocence is the right path and experience is bad. And what Britten plays with here is, what if experience were part of a portal into adulthood? If this is part of a child becoming a man, what value judgment do you place on it?"
This is dangerous territory. "You simply can't talk about these things today," says Kildea. "If you're talking about experience, it comes down to pedophilia. Let's not call it child abuse. Let's call it what it is. Rape. And the power imbalance between adults and children. But what if the power imbalance is driven by the child? That is a curious and murky area."
Unsurprisingly, Kildea cites Bill Henson, whose darkly suggestive photographs of children caused a furore when they were to be exhibited in Sydney two years ago. "I thought the political response to that was really embarrassing," says Kildea. "In fact they were rather beautiful photographs. At the same time we have a cardinal in Australia who thinks that a lot of what has gone on in Catholic schools is something of a press beat-up. And the government says nothing."'

Paul Kildea interviewed in The Australian June 2010.

One of Bill Henson's controversial photographs is used in my header montage. Paul Kildea's Britten and English culture is published by Penguin in February 2013. More on that dangerous territory here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Bill Henson image via Loon Pond. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

There is more to knowledge than a Wikipedia search

I had been living in New York quite a bit, and spending a lot of time with New Yorkers, and wherever I was I was hearing the same – the New York – answers to every question, and I realised that both the questions and answers that I was hearing were New York-based. And I realised that neither the questions nor the answers were the ones I was asking myself but I was surrounded by this language that had the questions and the answers knitted into it. And the only way out was to leave the city.
That is the poet Robert Lax explaining why he moved to the Greek island of Patmos in 1961. One of the reasons for my unfashionable dislike of social media in particular and contemporary media in general is that it speaks in a language that has the questions and answers knitted into it – a language geared to generating the approval of ‘followers’ and ‘friends’. It is very rarely that I agree with TV celebrities, but I can only echo Michael Palin’s recent plea that schools should place a renewed focus on traditional geography field trips to stop pupils being trapped behind classroom computer screens. Just as my first musical revelation came at an early age during a concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, so my first cultural revelations came in 1960s school trips to Europe, and continue today in similar journeys.

Paths converge in my header photo which was taken recently at the monastery of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux near Avignon. My love affair with the Midi started with a 1965 school trip to Avignon and Perpignan, and Robert Lax was a close friend of the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton who was born near Perpignan. I have my back to the camera and facing it is composer Jeff Harrington, whose committed advocacy of new media is a refreshing counterbalance to my scepticism. With his artist wife Elsie Russell, Jeff decided that the only way was to leave the city of New York, first for Sanibel Island in Florida, and then Avignon. To the right is Father Edmond of the Benedictine community at Le Barroux. I have crossed swords with Father Edmond here before, but my frequent encounters with him are invaluable reminders that there is more to knowledge than a Wikipedia search. Which is why I found myself on the road last year with a Sufi saint.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Header quote is from Peter France's highly recommended Hermits. Photo taken by my wife is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, July 09, 2012

Museums are now the place for music journalism

"No journalism is 'doomed' but record industry advertising has been the mainstay of music journalism since the Fifties and that's begun to melt away dramatically," he says. "We can't see how we could transfer the essence of what makes the magazine special to an online format. It would be too expensive to produce editorial that complex and considered just for the tablet market."
That quote appears in an article about the demise of The Word magazine in today's Independent. Further proof of music journalism's museum status is provided by the truncated headline in the paper's i edition seen below. And yet more more proof comes in the Independent's own tablet sized and sleeve note derived review of Jordi Savall's new CD-book Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles & Prisons. There is a more complex and considered view of Saint Joan here.

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Sunday, July 08, 2012

In our past lies our present

Peasant girl turned warrior who became folk heroine of France and a Catholic saint – the story of Joan of Arc is common knowledge. But two other aspects of the Maid of Orleans, her supernatural powers and her appropriation by the French political right, have long fascinated me, and both feature in Jordi Savall’s CD-book Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles & Prisons. In this newly released double CD Jordi Savall uses music to evoke three contrasting sides of Joan’s character - her peasant origins are represented by popular tunes of the time by Dufay and others, her military vocation by Jordi Savall’s own development of the melody L’homme armé, and her divine voices by Dufay’s Veni Sancte Spiritus.

When the young Joan first heard voices and apparitions in 1425, she was inspired to be pious and charitable, and was also motivated to go into battle to save the “holy kingdom of France”. A central dogma of the Catholic Church is that it is the sole intermediary between God and believers, and the perceived heretical nature of Joan’s unmediated voices was the catalyst for her politically motivated imprisonment, trial and martyrdom in 1431. At a subsequent rehabilitation trial in 1455-6 her conviction was overturned and she was cleared of all heresy. But the retrial was a neat example of ecclesiastical semantics which revolved around the technical validity of her conviction for having broken a Biblical clothing law. It was Joan’s custom to wear fashionable men’s clothing, and she contended unsuccessfully at her trial that male clothing was necessary to fulfill her military destiny. At the retrial a doctrinal exception to the clothing law was discovered which allowed her conviction to be overturned, thereby conveniently avoiding any ruling on the acceptability of direct communion between God and believers.

Cinematography is a sub-text to this path, and it prompts a jump cut to an earlier path about another woman who indulged in cross-dressing from an early age. A taste for men’s clothing is not the only link between Isabelle Eberhardt and Joan of Arc - fact and fiction is confused in both their stories, both made their reputations in male dominated societies, both died too young, and both had mystical vocations. In Algeria in 1899 Isabelle was made an initiate of one of the oldest Sufi orders, an unprecedented honour for any European, male or female. Isabelle’s commitment to mystic Islam, a tradition that denies the existence of intermediaries between God and believers, provides a thought-provoking link to Joan and her direct communications with the divine - a link that also raises interesting questions about the Maid of Orleans' subsequent beatification and canonisation. Joan’s spiritual disintermediation also has links to Gnosticism and the Cathar heresy, the latter surely not by chance being the subject of another Jordi Savall project. Cathars totally rejected the entity of the established church and all its trappings; because of this they were pronounced heretics and exterminated by the Catholic church in an unprecedented act of religious genocide.

In January 2012 the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy paid homage to Joan of Arc at her birthplace in Domremy, the first occupant of the Élysée Palace to do so for ninety-two years - see photo above. As Nadia Margolis points out in her thoughtful essay in the CD-book, the president's homage was an attempt to reinvent the Maid of Orleans as an ecumenical figure of French national unity. To use current marketing parlance, Sarkozy attempted to reposition the Joan of Arc brand away from the extreme-rightism of the Le Pen family who had adopted her as a trade mark, and instead claim her as the property of the political centre-right. As subsequent events proved, Sarkozy’s attempt to win the endorsement of Saint Joan failed, and it is unlikely that his successor François Holland will be visiting Domremy in the near future.

Sarkozy’s attempt to appropriate Joan has parallels with her celebrated appearance as a political poster girl for Marshal Pétain’s infamously collaborationist Vichy regime, see below. But one pertinent misappropriation of France’s folk heroine is omitted from Nadia Margolis’ essay – traditionalist Catholics invoke her as an inspiration, and draw parallels between her fate and the excommunication in 1988 of the extreme-right Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. This minor omission notwithstanding, the inclusion of an essay titled 'Joan of Arc and the Evolution of the Right in France' once again confirms Jordi Savall's commitment to making classical music relevant to current affairs. He is praiseworthy for being one of the few contemporary musicians to do this – can you imagine an essay on human rights in Venezuela in a Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra CD booklet?

Montserrat Figueras plays a leading role in Alia Vox’s Joan of Arc project, and the CDs feature new recordings made in 2011 together with music composed and recorded by Jordi Savall in 1993 for two films by director Jacques Rivette about Joan of Arc - the 1993 material was previously released on the Astrée label. In his introductory essay Savall says his mission is to give history a spoken voice, and spoken voice transcripts in French of the powerful prose from Joan’s condemnation and rehabilitation trials dominate the discs. One of the other essays in the CD-book is by Robin Blaetz on ‘Joan of Arc and film’, and, as mentioned earlier, cinematography provides a sub-text to the project. Not only is some of the music derived from a film score, but the project’s overall shape owes more to documentary direction than music production, with the finished result being more cinema verité derived audio verité than music CD.

At first hearing the music-lite style of Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles & Prisons is disconcerting, and the subject matter does mean this is audio noir as well as audio verité. But this new CD-book cannot be judged against conventional music CDs and I have written previously about the difficulties of categorising Jordi Savall projects. For some years he has been heading for the outer reaches of the music universe and with Joan of Arc may have finally broken free of that restrictive orbit. In his essay for Nonesuch’s Steve Reich retrospective box Alex Ross describes how Reich “worked to erase the boundary between speech and music” and Jordi Savall is following Reich in that direction, a path also taken by Glenn Gould in his groundbreaking contrapuntal radio documentaries.

In their foreword to Hidden Wisdom, a book that deals with spiritual traditions including esoteric Christianity, Sufism and Gnostcism, the authors Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney write that “It is true, of course, that in our past lies our present: each of these traditions has long antecedents in our civilization, so much so that understanding them may clarify much of what otherwise seems obscure in Western history”. Despite this, today’s technology-centric society  dismisses the links between the past and present as being of little relevance, instead preferring to concentrate on projecting the present into the future. By contrast, the partnership of Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall was guided by their belief that in our past lies not only our present but also our future. Six centuries ago Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for being a heretic, and the term ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek root meaning ‘to think for oneself’. Today, in classical music in particular and society in general, we are desperately short of people who think for themselves. Which is why the inspired collaborations of honorary heretics Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall will be so sorely missed.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Sarkozy image credit le JDD.Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles Prisons was purchased online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk